TITLE: Lengthen, Then Strengthen
AUTHOR: Eugene Wallingford
DATE: July 16, 2009 11:36 AM
Update: I've added a link to a known use.
(A pattern I've seen in running that applies more broadly.)
You are developing a physical skill or an ability
that will take you well beyond your current level
of performance. Perhaps you are a non-runner
preparing for a 5K, or a casual runner training
for a marathon, or an experienced runner coming
back from a layoff.
To succeed, you will need endurance, the ability to
perform steadily over a long period. You will also
need strength, the ability to perform at a higher
speed or with greater power over a shorter period
of time. Endurance enables you to last for an
amount of time longer than usual. It requires you
to develop your slow-twitch muscles and your
aerobic capacity, which depends on effective delivery
of oxygen to your muscles. Strength enables you to
work faster or harder, such as uphill or against an
irregular force. It requires you to develop your
fast-twitch muscles and your anaerobic capacity,
which depends on muscles working effectively in the
absence of oxygen.
You might try to develop strength first. Strength
training involves many repetitions of intense work
done for short durations. When you are beginning
your training, you can handle short durations more
easily than long ones. The high intensity will be
uncomfortable, but it won't last for long. This
does not work very well. First, you won't be able
to work at an intense enough level to train your
muscles properly, which means that your training
sessions will not be as effective as you'd hope.
Second, because your muscles are still relatively
week, subjecting them to intense work even for
short periods greatly increases the risk of
You might try to develop strength and endurance in
parallel. This is a strategy commonly tried by
people who are in a hurry to reach a specific
level of performance. You do longer periods of
low-intensity work on some days and longer periods
of high-intensity work on others. This strengthens
your both your slow- and fast-twitch muscles and
allows you to piggyback growth in one area on top
of growth in the other. Unfortunately, this does
not work well, either. There is a small decrease
in the risk of injury from your strength training,
but not as much as you might think. Our bodies
adapt to change rather slowly, which means that
your muscles don't grow stronger fast enough to
prepare them for the intensity of strength training.
Even when you don't injure yourself, you increase
the risk of plateauing or fatigue.
Therefore, build a strong aerobic
base first. Train for several weeks or even months
at a relatively low level of intensity, resting
occasionally to give your body a chance to adapt.
This will build endurance, with slower speed or
less power than you might want, but also strengthen
your muscles, joints, and bones. Only then
add to your regimen exercises that build your
anaerobic capacity through many repetitions of
high-intensity, short-duration activities. These
will draw on the core strength developed earlier.
Continue to do workouts focused on endurance.
These will give your body a chance to recover from
the higher intensity workouts and time to adapt to
those stresses in the form of more speed or power.
For all but the most serious athletes, one or two
strength workouts a week are sufficient. Doing
more increases the risk of injury, fatigue, or
loss of interest in training. As in so many
endeavors, steady, regular practice tends to be
much more valuable than occasional or spotty
practice. This is especially true when the goal
requires a long period of preparation, such as a
Examples. Every training program I have
ever seen for runners, from 5Ks up to marathons,
emphasizes the need for a strong aerobic base
before before worrying about speed or other forms
of power. This is especially true for beginners.
Some beginners are eager to improve quickly and
often don't realize how hard training can be on
their bodies. Others fear that is they are not
working "hard enough" they are not making progress.
Low-intensity endurance training does work your
body hard enough, just not in short bursts that
make you strain.
Greg McMillan describes the usual form this pattern
takes as well as a variation in
Time To Rethink Your Marathon Training Program?.
In its most common form, a runner first builds
aerobic base, then works on strength in the form
of hills and tempo runs, and finally works on
speed. Gabriele Rosa, whom McMillan calls "arguably
the world's greatest marathon coach", structures
his training programs differently. He still starts
his athletes with a significant period building
aerobic base (Lengthen) followed by by a period
that develops anaerobic capability (Strengthen).
But he starts the anaerobic phase with short track
workouts that develop the runners speed, down to
200m intervals, and only then has the runner move
to strength workouts. Rosa's insight is that "the
goal in marathon training is to fatigue the athlete
with the duration of the workouts and not the speed,
so speed needed to be developed first". This
variation may not work well for runners coming
back from injuries or who are otherwise prone to
injury, because the speed workouts stress the
body in a more extreme way than the tempo and
cruise workouts of longer-distance strength work.
Lengthen, then Strengthen applies even to more
experienced runners coming back from periods of
little or no training. Many such runners assume
that they can quickly return to the level they
were at before the layoff, but the body will have
adapted to the lower level of exertion and require
retraining. Elite athletes returning from injury
usually take several months to build their aerobic
base before resuming hard training regimens.
I have written this pattern from the perspective
of running, but it applies to other physical
activities, too, such as biking and swimming.
The risk of injury in some sports is lower than
in running, due to less load on muscles, joints,
and bones, but the principles of endurance and
strength are the same.
Related Ideas. I think this pattern
is also present in some forms of learning. For
example, it is useful to build attention span
and vocabulary when learning learning a new
discipline before trying to build critical
skills or deep expertise. The gentler form of
learning provides a base of knowledge that is
required for expert analysis or synthesis.
I realize that this application of the pattern
is speculative. If you have any thoughts about
it, or the pattern more generally, please
let me know.